Washington Burning: The 200th Anniversary of The War of 1812

The Capitol and the White House both lay in ruins. The president had fled. How had a foreign power occupied Washington in just one day?
Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Not long after sundown, as night fell on the streets of the
nearly abandoned city, the sky above Washington flared suddenly alight
again. It looked at first like flashes of sheet lightning breaking the
muggy August air. But then an orange glow settled over Capitol Hill,
shining brighter and brighter, a beacon of catastrophe.

From Maryland hilltops, eastward across the Anacostia River and
northward on the heights of Tenleytown, soldiers and officers of the
American army looked on in stunned silence, watching flames rise above the
halls of Congress. President James Madison and members of his Cabinet,
fleeing on horseback deep into Virginia, kept stopping to gape at the
conflagration each time it became newly visible at a rise or a bend in the
road, unable to turn their backs fully on the disaster they were leaving
behind. At a house on the far bank of the Potomac, the First Lady kept a
silent vigil, hour after long hour. Many thousands of ordinary citizens
watched as well. In an era before electric lights, the fire on the horizon
could be seen from 40 miles away.

At the Capitol building, the enemy had been brutal in its
efficiency, well trained as it was in the art of war. Initially the
edifice, as if possessed of its own stubborn will to survive, had resisted
the onslaught, its thick pinewood roof failing to ignite as Congreve
rockets—weapons only recently developed—were fired at it from below. But
red-coated soldiers tore the spectators’ gallery from the walls of the
House chamber and hacked fine woodwork into kindling with their hatchets,
tossing mahogany desks, chairs, and tables atop the wreckage to form an
enormous pyre at the center of the room. They smeared gunpowder paste on
the walls before firing more rockets, this time directly into the heaped
debris.

Now the flames roared to life, caught, and spread. Tendrils of
fire climbed the heavy silk curtains lining the hall and consumed the
crimson canopy above the speaker’s chair. As the pyre became an immense
bonfire, chandeliers crashed from the ceiling and plate-glass skylights
shattered and melted.

Eerie figures of animals and humans seemed to circle the
inferno like dancers in a nightmare: the immense sandstone eagle beneath
the ceiling; the godlike allegorical figures of Agriculture, Art, Science,
and Commerce; the marble statue of Liberty clutching a scrolled
Constitution, her foot treading on the fallen crown of despotism. Then the
sculpted stonework began cracking under the intense heat. Faces and wings
blackened and fell away; goddess, crown, and Constitution powdered into
lime.

Elsewhere in the building, invaders continued their relentless
obliteration, smashing furniture in the Supreme Court chamber—at the time
housed inside the Capitol—before setting it, too, ablaze. No such efforts
were required to destroy the Senate, where the wind drove in the flames to
consume the elegant hall. Upstairs in the Library of Congress, thousands
of handsome, leather-bound volumes, fine colored engravings, and rare
maps—many selected personally by former President Thomas Jefferson—were
reduced to ashes.

At the height of the blaze, the ravaged roof beams finally gave
way and the ceiling of the House chamber collapsed with a thunderous
whoosh, sending a geyser of sparks into the night sky. To distant
observers, it must have seemed as if Capitol Hill had erupted like a
volcano. Downwind, neighboring houses began to catch fire.

For Washingtonians that day—August 24, 1814, two years into the
War of 1812—the devastation of their city was a blow that went beyond the
physical loss. In retrospect, and by the standards of more recent urban
disasters, this one might seem mild: In the final reckoning, no American
lives were lost and little private property was destroyed. Washington’s
population at the time was just 10,000 or so, fewer than half the number
of inhabitants of DC’s Cleveland Park today.

But that relatively small community had built the federal city
with its own hands. Hardly a soul within its boundaries—from
African-American slaves and Irish immigrant laborers to congressmen and
Cabinet secretaries—had not participated somehow in the effort that, in
barely 20 years, had begun transforming a landscape of tobacco fields,
pine flats, and muddy farm lanes into the capital of a rising world
power.

Foreign visitors may have mocked what Charles Dickens called
the “city of magnificent intentions,” with its Grecian edifices rising
alongside ramshackle taverns. Yet at a time when most Americans lived in
simple wooden houses and public art was almost unknown, the Capitol’s rich
adornments—the silk brocade and polished mahogany, the sculptures carved
of Virginia stone by artists from Italy—were national treasures, the
property of every citizen. In its rudimentary state, Washington was a
promissory note against future greatness.

Watching the Capitol burn, a middle-aged clerk from the Navy
Yard—old enough to remember the revolution that had won the nation its
freedom from Britain some three decades earlier—felt physically sickened
at “a sight, so repugnant to my feelings, so dishonorable; so degrading to
the American Character.”

Worst of all was that the disaster had not needed to happen. It
had occurred because of Americans’ ineptitude and cowardice in the face of
a longtime enemy and because of their leaders’ imprudence. The national
government that had seemed so solid just a week earlier had, like the
Capitol, crumbled in an instant. This, more than anything, made the
tragedy almost impossible to bear.

In the dark early hours of August 19, a hawk-nosed, sunburned
British officer peered from his longboat toward the alien shore ahead.
Rear Admiral George Cockburn was taking one of the biggest gambles of his
career. Now 42, he had faithfully served the Royal Navy since going to sea
at age 14, not long after the last American war. He had battled the
Spanish and the French in the East Indies and the Mediterranean and
learned the ploys and tactics of a fighting captain under Lord Nelson
himself.

With his brash swagger and weatherbeaten hat trimmed in gold
braid, Cockburn (pronounced “co-burn,” the admiral would thank you to
remember) was the very model of a British naval commander. Despite his
imperious manner, his subordinates worshiped him as an officer who—in the
words of one teenage midshipman—“never spared himself, either night or
day, but shared on every occasion, the same toil, danger, and privation of
the [lowliest] man under his command.”

Yet Cockburn had faced considerable skepticism over the past
several months in pushing for an attack on Washington. His superior, the
vacillating Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, chief of British naval
operations in North America, had at first favored the plan but then turned
his attention to the less risky strategy of freeing and arming
African-American slaves. Major General Robert Ross, the Army officer who
would have to command the land operations, was similarly
hesitant.

Back in Great Britain, however, civilian opinion was clamoring
for the impudent Yankees to be taught a lesson. “Now that the tyrant
Bonaparte has been consigned to infamy”—which was to say the island of
Elba—“there is no public feeling in this country stronger than that of
indignation against the Americans,” the Times of London had
editorialized a few months earlier.

Perhaps the origins of the War of 1812 were, in most Britons’
and Americans’ minds, half lost in a tangle of mutual affronts: trade
disputes, insults to sovereignty, and the multiple contusions caused by an
upstart power jostling against an established one. In any case, the
battles already fought on land and sea had afforded ample fodder for
mutual hatred. British commanders had burned villages and plantations
along America’s shoreline and allied with Indian tribes in ravaging the
frontiers. Americans had sunk British frigates and burned legislative
buildings in the Canadian provincial headquarters of York (now
Toronto).

So Cockburn had argued for the capture of the enemy capital,
“always so great a blow to the government of a country,” more for its
psychological value than its strategic importance. No more than 48 hours
after landing troops near the Maryland village of Benedict, he promised
Cochrane, he and Ross could take Washington “without difficulty or
opposition of any kind.”

British rear admiral George Cockburn, with his brash swagger, promised that he could capture Washington “without difficulty or opposition of any kind.” Illustration courtesy of Library of Congress.

Disembarking with a modest force of 4,500, he was about to put
his bravado to the test. Surely Cockburn, a veteran of the Chesapeake
campaign, could not have seriously imagined that the Yankees would
surrender the seat of their republic before firing a single shot. But hour
after hour passed without a glimpse of the foe.

The only immediate enemy was the broiling midsummer heat, which
took an awful toll on men in heavy wool uniforms hauling muskets and
ammunition and trundling artillery pieces, with legs still wobbly after
months at sea. (The Maryland climate, one Briton recalled decades later,
was “little inferior to that which I have subsequently experienced in the
Gulf of Guinea.”) To boost morale, drummers and buglers struck up a
stirring air from Handel: “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!”

The British knew that one substantial military barrier did lurk
in the vicinity: an American flotilla of more than a dozen gunboats under
Commodore Joshua Barney, taking shelter somewhere up the nearby Patuxent
River. The invaders’ first mission was to destroy the small fleet—the sole
remaining US naval presence in the Chesapeake Bay—lest it become a
nuisance.

Indeed, Barney might well have offered resistance that could
have pinned down the British while Americans prepared to defend the
capital. As it was, it took three days to reach the point where the
flotilla lay anchored far upstream. But scarcely had the British force
glimpsed the vessels than they began, one by one, to explode: Barney,
obeying orders from his superiors in Washington, was destroying his own
fleet rather than letting it fall into enemy hands.

As for Yankee land power, the redcoats finally encountered
their first armed adversaries that same morning: a lone sailor who fired
unsuccessfully at one of Cockburn’s aides from behind a bush (he was
quickly captured and subdued) and a few horsemen who appeared atop a bluff
(they galloped off when the British fired in their direction).

As Cockburn and Ross were beginning to guess, the Americans had
decided to concentrate their troops farther inland, where they could face
the invaders on ground of their own choosing. The British expedition, deep
into unfamiliar enemy territory with a small, heat-exhausted force, faced
ever greater risk of being caught in a trap. Mindful of this, Cochrane
sent a courier from his flagship with instructions to terminate the
mission: In provoking the flotilla’s destruction, it had accomplished
quite enough.

Ross was ready to obey, but to his chagrin, Cockburn insisted
on ignoring the dispatch. The two commanders argued late into the night.
Finally, as August 23 dawned, an exhausted Ross capitulated: “Well, be it
so, we will proceed.” Soon their army was on the march toward the capital
city.

It took another day of slow, sweltering progress before British
troops spotted a large dust cloud hovering a couple of miles ahead.
Drawing closer, they spied the glinting bayonets and musket barrels of an
American army awaiting them, drawn up atop a hill alongside the town of
Bladensburg. One of Ross’s officers, Lieutenant George Gleig, was struck
by the contrast between the foes. All around him, immaculately uniformed
redcoats marched in perfect cadence, “silent as the grave, and orderly as
people at a funeral.”

The Yankee militiamen—though well armed and outnumbering the
invaders—scarcely looked like soldiers at all, dressed in a motley
assortment of uniform parts and civilian clothes. From the moment they
spotted the British, they began filling the air with excited shouts. These
would-be defenders, Gleig scoffed, “might have passed off very well for a
crowd of spectators, come out to view the approach of the army which was
to occupy Washington.”

At first, these “spectators” put up a surprisingly stiff
resistance, loosing volleys of gunfire that cut down redcoats by the
dozens. One bullet severed the strap of Cockburn’s stirrup, and another
killed the marine who stepped in to repair the damaged leather. But then
shouts of “Forward!” sounded up and down the British line, and as the
veteran soldiers marched ahead in lockstep, the Yankee militiamen began to
break and run.

“Never did men with arms in their hands make better use of
their legs,” Gleig wrote. Less than an hour after the first shots at
Bladensburg, the road to Washington lay open.

Amid the thick of the battle, a careful observer on the British
side might have spied a small, scholarly-looking gentleman, who had been
superintending the battle from just behind the American lines, wheel his
horse around and gallop away. The black-clad figure disappeared into the
dusty distance. President Madison had seen enough.

In Washington, panic already had begun to hold sway. Over the
past several days, many of the District’s inhabitants had come to realize
that disaster was imminent, and the streets were now choked with carriages
and carts ferrying refugees and their belongings—as well as a few being
used to rescue precious government property.

One valiant junior clerk, assisted by an African-American
office messenger, took it upon himself to safeguard the Senate’s most
important documents, including secret plans for the ongoing war. A State
Department employee rolled up the original Declaration of Independence and
Constitution to be stashed away outside the city. Yet many other
Washingtonians still refused to believe what seemed
inconceivable.

Arriving at the abandoned White House, famished British soldiers found a sumptuous feast laid out. After partaking of the food and drink, they set fire to the mansion. Illustration courtesy of Library of Congress.

The battle for the city had been lost here as much as on the
field at Bladensburg—over the course of months and even years. It was lost
during session after session of Congress, when legislators refused to fund
an adequate army, relying instead on haphazardly trained militia. It was
lost when Madison chose an inexperienced political appointee to command
the region’s military defenses a few months before the invasion. It was
lost when Secretary of War John Armstrong refused to believe that the
nearby British fleet posed any danger to Washington. It was lost when the
Secretary of the Navy, sending urgent orders for reinforcements to
Philadelphia, inexplicably consigned them to the regular mail. (His letter
reached the post office on a Sunday.) It was lost when troops rushing to
join the army at Bladensburg were detained for hours in the capital while
a detail-oriented supply clerk made their colonel sign receipts for every
last gunflint. (They arrived after the battle was over.)

Last-ditch plans to defend the city on August 24 came to
nothing. Secretary Armstrong reluctantly let go of a scheme to conceal
heavy artillery and 5,000 infantrymen inside the Capitol. Deeds of valor
in the city that day would be civilian, not military.

That afternoon, as defeated troops from Bladensburg streamed
toward the capital, a 15-year-old slave named Paul Jennings was helping
set the table at the White House. Dolley Madison had requested places for
40 guests, as she expected her husband to return with his Cabinet members
and military commanders for a leisurely meal. Jennings put out fine silver
and china. As he and the other servants awaited the presidential party’s
arrival, hoofbeats sounded through the open window. Instead of the
distinguished guests, it was a messenger bearing news of the
rout.

More than any other Americans in 1814, James and Dolley Madison
could have claimed Washington as a place of their own creation. As father
of the Constitution, the President himself had devised the federal system
that provided—and still provides—its raison d’ĂȘtre. He had been among the
earliest advocates of the capital’s location on the Potomac River, and he
and his wife had been among its first prominent residents. Dolley Madison,
during eight years as frequent White House hostess under the widowed
Jefferson, then five years as First Lady, had brought to life the
capital’s social ecosystem. James Madison stands as founding father of one
version of Washington: the city of House, Senate, and Supreme Court.
Dolley’s spirit presides over another: the city of power lunches,
lobbyists’ receptions, and embassy parties.

Now the couple presided over Washington’s destruction, the
result of a war that the President had advocated and an invasion he had
done little to guard against. With her husband nowhere to be found, the
First Lady did all she could. She stuffed some White House silverware into
her handbag, grabbed her copy of the Declaration of Independence, and
asked Jennings and another slave to remove Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of
George Washington from its frame for easier transport. Then she locked the
front door and climbed aboard a waiting carriage. Among the last refugees
to leave the White House was her beloved pet macaw, carried out in the
arms of a slave.

An enduring myth of that day is that Dolley Madison cut the
Stuart portrait out of its frame. The painting shows no evidence of this.
Other oft-told stories about the burning of Washington rest on similarly
shaky foundations, including an anecdote about Cockburn and his officers
play-acting a legislative session in the abandoned House chamber, with the
admiral proposing from the speaker’s chair, “Shall this harbor of Yankee
democracy be burned?” I’ve found no firsthand British accounts of that
scene.

Much better documented is the banquet hosted at the White House
not long after Dolley Madison’s precipitous departure. Arriving at the
mansion, famished British soldiers were delighted to find the sumptuous
repast still laid out. After partaking generously of the food
and—especially—drink, they finished, in Lieutenant Gleig’s words, “by
setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.” First,
many grabbed souvenirs, including the President’s cocked hat and dress
sword and his wife’s portrait. Cockburn joined in the fun with lewd jokes
at the First Lady’s expense. The cleanest one was when he grabbed the
cushion from her chair, quipping that he wished to “warmly recall Mrs.
Madison’s seat.”

Truth be told, more eyewitness accounts attest that the
redcoats’ behavior was restrained, even chivalrous—at least as much as
could be hoped of an invading army. With few exceptions—such as the
offices of a leading pro-war newspaper—Cockburn and Ross enforced a rule
that no private property should be harmed. Besides the White House, the
only residence deliberately burned was a house on Capitol Hill from which
some stray shots were fired, killing Ross’s horse from beneath him.
Officers torched the Treasury building but spared the Patent Office and
banks. Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep its vessels and
supplies from falling into enemy hands; its storehouses full of lumber,
cloth, oil, and tar made an inferno rivaling that at the Capitol. A
detachment of redcoats followed up the next morning to demolish what the
first blaze had missed, and several dozen were killed and wounded after
accidentally igniting a cache of gunpowder.

Then, almost as suddenly as the British had arrived, they
vanished. Just after dark on August 25, barely 24 hours after they had
torched the Capitol, the invaders withdrew back toward Bladensburg and the
safety of Admiral Cochrane’s ships.

For those few inhabitants who had remained in the city, the
past two days’ events would linger as a set of surreal images, vivid in
color and blurry in outline. Almost 200 years later, despite all the
history the capital has seen since, their descriptions of the invaders
still possess the quality of lucid dreams.

One of the Washingtonians who recorded his memories was Michael
Shiner, a young slave apprentice at the Navy Yard. “As son as we got a
sight of British armmy raising that hill they looked like flames of fier,”
he wrote, “all red coats and the stoks of ther guns painted with red ver
Milon and the iron work shind like a spanish dollar . . . .” Shiner was
one of the last living witnesses to the tragedy of August 1814, surviving
for nearly another seven decades. He would carry those terrible days with
him for many long years, through emancipation, the Civil War, and beyond,
into a Washington vastly altered from the fledgling capital that the
redcoats had burned.

Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, is the author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening.”

This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

TAGGED IN:

More from News & Politics